The title of the new book “A Star is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away” has multiple meanings even just on the surface.
It could refer to Garland’s well documented troubles on the set including her struggles against ill health and addictions while she was dealing with the intense pressures to make a major comeback with the film.
It could also suggest the botched editing from the movie’s original running time of 196 minutes – the longest length of any Hollywood film since “Gone With the Wind” at the time – down to 181 minutes for its Hollywood premiere (which was met with enthusiastic reviews) and then the severe cut to a disjointed 154 minutes to appease theater owners who wanted an additional daily showing. (Even worse: all the cut footage was destroyed.)
But it wasn’t until reading this book, co-written by Lorna Luft, Garland’s youngest daughter, that the true meaning became clear: “A Star is Born,” which had been difficult for Luft to watch because it hit so close to home, almost got away from her in the sense of understanding its true greatness and what the film meant to her mother. And if it had gotten away from Luft, we now understand, it would have gotten away from us all.
Luft was only 16 when her mother died – the same age Garland was when she played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” – yet she understood her mother’s struggles as best a teen could, even taking on the huge responsibility of being her caretaker. So when she saw “A Star is Born” at age 18 for the first time, it was painful. At that point, she had only seen her mother on screen in her youthful work like “Wizard of Oz” and the Andy Hardy films. Now, she was finally seeing the mother she knew.
“The person I knew as my mother was right there on television in ‘A Star is Born.’ ” Luft writes. “This was Mama. After that first experience, I would watch ‘A Star is Born’ once in a while, here and there, without fully understanding the high regard some people expressed for it. It felt scattered, choppy, not the great piece of work I later – much later- came to appreciate. I eventually came to regard it as the film that got away.”
“A Star is Born” was supposed to set off Act II of Garland’s career as her comeback – a ridiculous thought considering she was only 30. But the truncated and confusing version of the film that many audiences saw failed at the box office, leading the studio to walk away and sending Garland even deeper into a tailspin.
Instead of it being a crowning achievement for her parents (dad Sid Luft produced the film), “A Star is Born” was a dark cloud that hung over the family for decades. For Luft, the healing process didn’t start until the 1983 restoration and was finally completed in 2010 at a gala screening at the inaugural Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. She brought her children to see the film and their “enthusiastic reaction” helped Luft to open up her memories and photos of the movie that she had “carefully kept and privately collected for decades.”
“Now I could watch and discuss the film with a more optimistic outlook. …. In a way, the accolades the film was receiving decades later helped to soothe the pain it had caused me in the past.”
This well-designed and easy to read book, co-written with film historian Jeffrey Vance, takes us through this emotional process. It’s augmented by a wonderful treasure trove of photos that are mostly from Luft’s personal collection. (I would buy this book just for the photos.)
While the book clearly focuses on Garland and the film, it has sections on the other movie versions starting with “What Price Hollywood?” (1932) that was the loose basis for “A Star is Born” films to follow: Janet Gaynor-Fredric March (1937), Garland-James Mason (1954) and Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson (1976). (Luft does address the new 2018 version with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga saying she is looking forward to seeing it.)
The films are put in historical perspective with enough plot summaries and explanations of differences in characters and scenes to make it interesting and a conversation starter, as opposed to dry scholarly reading. We also get new insight into the reconstruction and restoration work done on the film for its 1983 re-release. (If you want to delve deeper into this process, read the 1988 book “A Star is Born” by Ronald Haver, who Luft mentions here.)
It’s especially poignant to learn that many in the production, even Garland, understood that she was, in real life, both of the main characters: the rising star Vicki Lester and the tragic fading star Norman Maine. Throughout her adult life Garland rode a roller coaster of dual personas and it took a huge toll.
“Mama identified with both main characters – a great, promising young talent brought low by addiction, self-loathing and self-destruction,” Luft writes.
Although the structure of the book doesn’t allow for deep detail– it is not a biography or autobiography – Luft doesn’t sugarcoat her mother’s battles with her demons. She even holds her parents responsible for not overseeing the additional editing on the film that resulted in its near destruction. (They had gone on a European holiday after filming.)
“It’s a shame they didn’t stay in Hollywood and nurture their project just a little while longer, fight for it just a little bit harder. They should have. It shows they weren’t equipped as producers,” she writes.
It would have been easy for “A Star is Born” to have gotten away forever from Luft, her family and movie fans. Instead, thanks to the work of many, including Luft who fought to see the original movie her parents made, the film has been reborn. This book gives us a unique view into the process that only a loved one could provide. “The catch in her throat when she belts the climactic notes in ‘The Man That Got Away.’ … The sparkle in her eyes when she wipes her tears and opens her arms wide, grinning in her straw hat. These moments are so Mama, so quintessentially Judy Garland. It’s her moment to shine,” Luft writes. “And in this film perhaps, more than any other, her spirit does shine on.”